I'm proud to have been asked to deliver a new series of columns unearthing some of the treasures known as film noir, so dubbed by the French after the ravages of WWII. In America, it was not so much a genre as a mood, as soldiers returned home and the enthusiasm of victory wore off. It was not easy to return to normal life, and sometimes men became discouraged, morose, and tempted. The fear and paranoia they might have felt was not reflected in Hollywood musicals and comedies. In most stories of film noir, a man finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes this predicament is of his own making, and sometimes it's just bad luck. He must make a decision, and inevitably, it's the wrong one. Sometimes this decision has to do with a female, or sometimes the promise of wealth or fame. Or sometimes it's just the promise of simple survival. It's what I like to term the "lure of the underworld," where the hero will spend the rest of the film, sometimes escaping at the end, most of the time not.
I'll start today with one of my favorites, Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945).
Behind the Scenes
Detour is often referred to as the "greatest B-movie ever made." It was written by Martin Goldsmith and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer at PRC Pictures for an estimated $30,000, over a rumored six days. It has a real low-down, desperate feel, with its cheap sets and process shots, and it's one of the bleakest and most uncompromising of the films noir. It's currently in the public domain and it can be seen very cheaply on DVD or free online, though I was lucky enough to see it once on the big screen of San Francisco's movie palace the Castro Theatre, and I try to see it at least once a year, no matter what the format.
Ulmer has become a major cult figure among movie buffs; he was a set designer for many of the great German Expressionist filmmakers, and worked on such classics as Fritz Lang's Metropolis and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. In Hollywood, he worked on low budget African-American and Yiddish movies, as well as one high-profile job on the Universal monster movie The Black Cat (1934). As of the 1940s, he became a regular PRC man, making one low-budget movie after another in any kind of genre (sci-fi, pirate movies, horror movies, Westerns, musicals, etc.). He worked until the early 1960s, rarely breaking out of the "B's." He was so good -- and so invaluable -- in this capacity that no one ever found a reason to give him a shot at the A-list.
Actress Ann Savage lived until late in 2008 and often made personal appearances at screenings of the film. (She also appeared in Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg.) Her co-star Tom Neal, however, wound up in jail on the charge of killing his wife and died in 1972.
What It's About
Al Roberts (Neal) is a poor musician who ekes out a living with his singer girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake) in New York. She decides to make a go of it in Hollywood, and after some time Al decides to join her, though he can do little more than hitchhike across the country. Soon a man named Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) picks him up. Unfortunately Charles suddenly dies in his sleep, and Al makes the bad decision to assume his identity, take his money and car, and complete his trip. He makes an even worse decision to pick up a female hitchhiker named Vera (Ann Savage) who figures out what Al is up to. The two become unwilling companions as Vera cooks up ever more sinister plans involving Al's destiny.
The Lure of the Underworld
When Haskell dies, Al's first reaction is that he will be blamed for the crime, which seems fairly irrational in the light of day, but in Al's universe, is terribly real. He narrates the movie, often saying things like "Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you" or "Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." Therefore, taking over Haskell's identity, wallet and car is his best and only option. This is his entryway into the underworld, and the next step is not to get caught. What force causes him to stop and pick up Vera is less clear, other than it's the good deed that does not go unpunished. But it's the act of letting Vera into the car that seals the doorway to the underworld. Al can never return.
The Femme Fatale
Many films noir have a "femme fatale" character -- also named by the French -- who is responsible for the hero's downfall. She is seductive and powerful and ruthless. Vera is one of the nastiest and most purely vicious of femmes fatale, though it's debatable whether or not she's "seductive." That could be one of the most plausible reasons Al stopped to pick her up: she looked good in a sweater, or perhaps she felt like a kindred spirit, a fellow soul on the road. But after she gets him under her thumb, she retains the upper hand throughout.
Film noir is known for urban locations and deep shadows, as well as interiors, such as seedy apartments, stuffy bars, hotels or boxing rings. But Detour is notable for being one of the few noirs set on the open road, and though it does have its share of depressing nightclubs and hotel rooms, much of it takes place in broad daylight. (It may be the only film noir that contains a drive-in hamburger joint with a cute, chirpy waitress.) Usually road movies create a feeling of limitless possibilities, but here, the same motif is used to illustrate dead ends... and detours.